Sunday, April 3, 2011

on families and keeping close

(Photograph by Shiho Fukada for The New York Times)

I read an article in The New York Times today headlined “Monuments to Clan Life Lose Appeal for Chinese”, by Edward Wong. It was about the earthen buildings – tulou in Mandarin – of Yongding, China, built by the ethnic Hakka and Minnan people of rural Fujian Province. These buildings housed entire clans – generations of families – making each one almost a village. The tulou would usually have four floors, and hundreds of rooms, with a massive central courtyard, many being round; others square or rectangular. Everyone living in a tulou would have the same surname, except for those who married into the clan.

The article says that tulou construction ended in the last century. It seems that as China’s clan traditions decline – and increasing numbers of people moving out of the tulou to live in modern apartments – the art of building these architectural wonders is dying. Mr Wong writes that the United Nations is seeking to preserve surviving tulou, and Unesco declared 46 tulou together to be a World Heritage Site in 2008. A UNESCO museum in one of the tulou says the structures were built between the 13th and 20th centuries.

“Perhaps the most famous tulou is the 17th-century, 402-room Chengqi lou, which has concentric ringsof homes and alleys on its ground floor,” Mr Wong writes. “Its diameter is about 100 metres. The people here are surnamed Jiang”. The photograph above, by Shiho Fukida, shows Chengqi lou. Isn’t it amazing? (More tulou pictures can be seen at and UNESCO World Heritage Sites).

Mr Wong quotes in his article: ‘“People don’t clean it anymore,” said Jiang Qing, 28, as she stood on an upper balcony of the 500-year-old Huan Xing tulou, whose name means “embracing prosperity.” “As long as people live here, the ecosystem thrives. Once people move out, then it all falls apart.”’

While I was fascinated by the article, I also felt a little, I guess, wistful. Whether migrating from a tulou to modern Hong Kong as many of the Chinese in this article are, or just moving our of your parents’ home when you’re 18 – I think it’s sort of sad, and perhaps reflective of the times, that families are not as close, and close-knit, as they used to be. "Once people move out, then it all falls apart".

It’s common for us Chinese to live with our parents, and even grandparents and great-grandparents, even after marriage – I think it’s based on the Confucian ideal of filial piety, which lauds respect for one’s parents and ancestors (filial piety is considered the highest of Chinese virtues, and covers a variety of things, including being good to, and taking care of one's parents).

My own family and many of my friends do have several generations living within the same house, which, while occasionally infuriating or just plain trying, is I think a great way to keep the family close, building strong ties, learning from each other, and best of all, having love and support whenever they – or you – need it. It’s not unusual for us, but I realised some time ago that many of my Western friends found it so.

Not too long back there was a bit of a hoo-ha when a certain American student uploaded a video on YouTube, voicing her feelings about Asians. In her public monologue, she referred to the Asians who lived around her, saying, “… their moms and their brothers and their sisters and their grandmas and their grandpas and their cousins and everybody that they know that they brought along from Asia with them – comes here on the weekends to do their laundry, buy their groceries and cook their food for the week… it’s seriously without fail... you will always see old Asian people running around this apartment complex every weekend, that’s what they do, they don’t teach their kids to fend for themselves”.

While I found the video itself laughable – and at the same time vaguely sad – the young lady was right in observing that many Asian families do like getting together as often as possible and doing domestic things like that. It’s not that we don’t teach our kids to fend for themselves – though I’m sure there are families like that regardless of culture – it’s just that we love the closeness that doing such familial things together brings, the love that it exemplifies. And I’m sure there are many families the world over who understand and do that, Asian or otherwise.

What’s sad is that this young lady is voicing the view that many people today have that having a cohesive family, being with them like that, spending so much time together, is somehow inexplicable, embarrassing even, and reflects a lack of maturity or independence. While striking out on one’s own is of course important and a part of growing up, I think it’s equally important to stay connected with where one came from. So often you hear of young people out on their own somewhere, indulging in all the follies of youth, uncaring of the wisdom of the older generations, ruining their own lives – and others too – in their pride and ignorance. Having a strong parental or familial presence in their lives could go a long way in helping to keep such individuals grounded in the right values, for the betterment not only of themselves, but of society as well.

“Honour thy father and thy mother, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee,” it says in Deuteronomy 5:16, “that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee”.

For it is in the very act of honouring one’s parents, in caring about one’s family, that one learns respect, patience, tolerance, responsibility, kindness, accountability and love – some of the things that surely this world needs a lot more of.

PS: Go call your Mom ;)

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